Tubelight: You cannot compromise on authenticity, says Kabir Khan
For all his Bollywood credentials, Kabir Khan says he hasn’t left the documentary filmmaker in himself behind, using a smart mix of crowd-pleasing elements and his leading man’s superstardom to convey themes of war, peace and divisive politics.Updated: Jun 22, 2017, 14:44 IST
For someone who wanted to make documentaries about war, Kabir Khan finds himself in the unlikeliest of places – making mainstream potboilers for Bollywood. Two of his last three films (both with actor Salman Khan) were blockbusters, and expectations are high for Tubelight, his latest offering which releases this Eid weekend.
For all his Bollywood credentials, Khan says he hasn’t left the documentary filmmaker in himself behind, using a smart mix of crowd-pleasing elements and his leading man’s superstardom to convey themes of war, peace and divisive politics.
Khan spoke to Reuters about the narrative in his films, working with the country’s most saleable star, and why he doesn’t think about Khan’s huge fan base while working with him.
After Tubelight you are also doing an Indo-China co-production film. Bollywood is also suddenly waking up to the potential of the Chinese market. Business aside, what do you think is the potential for stories from the two countries?
Despite the language barrier, there is a lot of similarity culturally. There is a certain Asian sensibility that we both have – family values, the way we look at society, gender equality or inequality. In that sense, there can definitely be stories that can work across the two cultures. It can’t just be any story. It has to be carefully thought-out. The potential is huge and that is why people are waking up to it and working towards it.
Was the Chinese background crucial for the plot in Tubelight?
Yeah, it had to be the Indo-China war. There are certain issues which come up in the film which would not have come up in any other war, whether 1965 or 1971.
Politics and history is always inherent in your films. How important is it to get authenticity right and also make a mainstream masala film?
I think authenticity is something you cannot compromise on. You always have to be authentic. How much detail you want to get into and whether you want an academic analysis of issues or not is something you want to balance out. At the end of the day, you want to make sure the film is entertaining. It is only when people are entertained do they come (to see the film) in large numbers and then you can put forth whatever comments on issues. At face value, it should be a film that you should be able to access. The politics should be in the layers underneath.
In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, the chicken song is a song that people can easily enjoy at face value, and people do. It is a nice peppy number and Salman is dancing like a chicken. But if you go into the politics of it and you go deeper, you realise it is common to what is happening in our country today. That makes it more profound. That is the trick, right? To be able to slip it in so that it doesn’t look like someone is preaching to you, but it is there and can make you think.
Is it important for you to always have a political or social message?
I think it is important to make a comment on something, otherwise why are you making that film? I agree that a story is a story and you can enjoy it for what it is, but I think inadvertently a filmmaker’s politics will always come through. The way your camera looks at a woman - it can say a lot about you. It doesn’t have to be politics of the political party kind. It could be gender politics. The way you treat the women characters in your film, it gives away your feelings about that topic – whether you treat them frivolously or not. Everything is politics. And everyone has an ideology. Without one, we are animals.
And when that politics marries the country’s most saleable star, does that make it a more potent combination?
It definitely makes it more potent because then your word is being carried to more quarters and is being spread to more quarters. What a Salman does to my films is that he gives it a certain reach all across the world that a smaller star would not be able to give.
What do you think you bring to Salman’s filmography?
I would like to believe that I have brought to his filmography a certain sense of coherence in the characters he is playing. (There is) a certain consistency of characters where the same character will not do everything that is in the list book of commercial cinema – he will only do things that his character will allow. That is something audiences are enjoying and that is why Bajrangi is his biggest film to date by miles. They enjoyed the consistency of the character and I’d like to believe that’s my contribution.
Salman’s fan base is a mystery to a lot of us…
(Interjects) It is a mystery to everybody, even to him.
But don’t you keep them in mind when you are making a film with Salman Khan? Are there dos and don’ts?
I’ll tell you honestly. We don’t keep them in mind because then (you) do things for people you don’t know. The only person you know is yourself and I believe you have to make a film that you will enjoy watching and then cross your fingers that a larger number of people identify with your vision. If you start succumbing to the pressure of what a star image is, you won’t evolve. For example, if I had given in to the pressure of making an action film with Salman (after Ek Tha Tiger), it would have been a safer bet to make another action film with him.
But action was out of my system and I didn’t want to make another action film with him. We took him into a world he has never been in. At that point, everyone said, “this is not what the fans expect… they expect him to beat up people, not to get beaten up, that too by Pakistani police officers.” That was the biggest taboo, but we did it and the audiences lapped it up. By not succumbing to pressure, we did something that turned out better for us.
You may not consider the fans, but does Salman Khan have any checklist – things he will or won’t do in films?
In our first film together he did. He would say, “Kabir, my people expect this and we should do this.” But that changed rapidly. And after Bajrangi, it never came up. Bajrangi was one of those films that did well but also got a lot of love. I don’t know whether we’ll ever get that kind of love again. And that is because people accepted his character for what it was… I believe in Tubelight, it will be the same – they will fall in love with his character.
You started off as a documentary film-maker but have gone on to make some of India’s most successful mainstream films. Do you think you’ll go back to documentary filmmaking?
I might. People laugh at this, but ultimately, we are all storytellers and we get our stories from our life experiences. All my life experiences have come from my documentaries. So if I run out of raw material, I might go back (Laughs). It is also the thrill of working with one or two people rather than an invading army that you take when you make a mainstream film. I am still that documentary filmmaker who came to Mumbai to make that one film and go back. Everything else that has happened should be a bonus.